When Grant Foster became alder in April, he felt very strongly that Madison’s City Council should be comprised of part-time members.
After holding the job for about six months, Foster has completely changed his mind. He feels that the City Council could drive priorities for the city rather than responding to matters put in front of them.
“There’s just no way for the council to lead and to do, what I think is, our constitutional duty in our current form,” Foster said.
An 11-member task force has been studying the questions Foster and other alders have been experiencing on the job. The group is charged with analyzing the composition of Madison’s local government, powers and duties of the mayor and City Council, and large number of boards, commissions and committees.
A major question the committee is grappling with is how the current council set-up — 20 part-time alders representing geographic boundaries — creates inequities in representation. Though the task force voted Oct. 2 to reduce the Council to 10 members, the committee could not come to a decision on size last Wednesday when the group reconsidered the item.
Any actual changes to how Madison’s government operates would likely require referendums, ordinance changes or resolutions. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she does not think any changes in terms of the size of the City Council or the employment status is "warranted."
Rhodes-Conway said she would rather make sure the City Council and council office have sufficient resources first.
"It just has not felt to me like we have tried all the things to make the workload one that is reasonable for a part time position and that we should try all of those things first before we move in a direction that would mean more money in the campaigns and a more professionalized council, so that people are running for their jobs," Rhodes-Conway said.
Though the alder position is meant to be part-time, alders who are able to shape their life around the alder job can put in more time.
“This is not a job that is accessible to most people in the community,” Ald. Keith Furman, District 19, said.
Some alders, like District 18 Ald. Rebecca Kemble, have unconventional jobs and work more on weekends and during a particular season. She is able to do more city work while others working a traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job cannot.
“That’s unfair to their constituents,” Kemble said. “If we’re serious about supporting democracy and representation in the city, we do need to compensate people for their work.”
Committee member Justice Castañeda, executive director of Commonwealth Development, said the set-up favors a demographic that is financially able to give more to a part-time position and restricts those who work full time and may have families.
“Having a system that excludes a swath of our population a swath of the residents and the citizens of Madison, Wisconsin from serving as elected officials is corrupt,” Castañeda said, “and allowing that to happen defacto is corrupt.”
After first meeting in February 2018, the committee voted Oct. 2 on the following recommendations:
- Reduce the council from 20 to 10 alders.
- Create full-time positions for alders instead of part-time.
- Switch to four-year terms instead of two-year terms.
- Limit alders to serve three consecutive four-year terms.
- Increase the terms for the president and vice president from one to two years.
- Pay members salaries at 80% of the Dane County median income for a parent and two children, a family of three, or $67,950. Alders are currently paid $13,570, with the council president and vice president making $16,513 and $14,460, respectively.
However, several task force members were not present at the meeting. Kemble called to reconsider the votes on the recommendations. She felt that voting one-by-one starting with the question of council size affected the rest of the votes.
“To take those votes in a linear fashion, really, I think forced some answers that I don’t feel like they were full-bodied enough,” Kemble said.
The size of the council remained a sticking point for task force members and, ultimately, they could not come to agreement. Some were concerned a smaller council could lead to politicians climbing the ladder and shrinking representation. Others argued that a smaller, professional council could lead to more opportunities for people of color and those traditionally kept from entering political office.
“We head from a lot of constituents that the current structure is not working for them,” member Maggie Northrop said. “More of something that isn’t working for a lot of people may not be the solution.”
The task force voted on the following recommendations regardless of the size of the council:
- Create full-time positions for alders instead of part-time
- Maintain representation by geographic aldermanic districts
- Change the terms of alders to four years
- Having alders serve 12 consecutive years
- Increase the terms for the president and vice president from one to two years
- Pay members 80% of the Dane County median income for a parent and two children, a family of three, or $67,950
Both scenarios will be included in a report to the mayor and City Council that is expected Dec. 1.
The Madison City Council approved the task force in September 2017, though talk of restructuring local government began earlier. In March 2016, former alders for District 15 and 19, David Ahrens and Mark Clear, announced a proposal called the Government Reform Initiative, which would have removed some mayoral powers.
The upcoming annexation of the town of Madison in 2022 and redistricting following the 2020 Census puts Madison in a place where structural changes could be made to local government.
"It totally is the right moment," Foster said.